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Thursday, 26 September 2002
Page: 5046


Senator JOHNSTON (6:20 PM) —The Australian commercial fishing industry has a long and very proud history of management of fisheries and fish resource stocks. Quite outstanding levels of sustainability and conservation have been achieved by this industry. I make special mention of the western rock lobster industry in my home state of Western Australia. This internationally acclaimed and envied record is unfortunately under very serious and continuing attack.

Australia's response to recent illegal fishing operations in our fishing zones and exclusive economic zones in the Southern Ocean has been a swift strengthening of our surveillance and apprehension efforts, with the defence forces, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and licensed commercial fishing operations cooperating to protect our pristine sub-Antarctic territories from both wanton overfishing and permanent environmental damage. The prize sought by these highly sophisticated and very well equipped illegal fishing operations is the remarkable patagonian toothfish. The toothfish can grow to over a metre in length and can weigh almost 100 kilograms, with a life span of some 50 years. The patagonian toothfish, often marketed as Chilean or Antarctic sea bass, is highly sought after, particularly in the United States and Japan, where one sashimi-grade fish can fetch as much as $US1,000.

In searching for the patagonian toothfish, illegal fishing vessels first targeted oceans around the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula but, as these plundered stocks dwindled and local patrols increased, these pirates then slowly moved east through the waters around South Georgia to the French-held Kerguelen Island and on to Australian fishing grounds in the vicinity of Heard and McDonald Islands. Some estimates put the illegal catch of patagonian toothfish at two to three times the size of the legitimate, regulated catch. Other estimates suggest that the illegal catch may be closer to 10 times the size. In a press release on 8 April 2002, Senator Ian Macdonald, the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, stated:

... over the past four years, the estimated illegal take of Patagonian Toothfish from our sub-Antarctic fisheries is 21,500 tonnes. The value of this catch on the market is in the order of $279.5 million.

By avoiding regulations imposing catch limits to protect fish stocks and wider environmental protection measures as adhered to by Australian commercial fishermen, the costs to poachers to catch patagonian toothfish are significantly less than the operations of law-abiding Australian fishermen in this industry. With such extensive poaching, market prices are dropping and the commercial viability of the patagonian toothfish is at risk. To make matters worse, many environmental groups, concerned over the amount of illegal take being offered in the market, are urging a total boycott of the purchase of any patagonian toothfish. In other words, legitimate and environmentally responsible Australian fishermen are to be further punished as a result of the nefarious activities of these poachers.

Apart from the degradation of fish stocks, the use of long-lines in this context is one of the most concerning aspects of illegal fishing in sub-Antarctic waters. According to an article in the Geographical Journal in April 2001, some illegal fishing vessels are using lines up to 100 kilometres long with some 50,000 baited hooks; birds are attracted to the bait and are inadvertently caught. Many species of bird in the sub-Antarctic are already endangered, with albatross populations in particular being decimated by long-line fishing. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition believes that over 100,000 albatrosses and petrels are killed every year by pirate fishers in the sub-Antarctic.

The remote location of these Southern Ocean fisheries near McDonald and Heard Islands makes it difficult for poachers to be caught. However, difficulty alone should not deter us from maintaining a very high level of protection of these significant environmental and economic assets. Indeed, difficulty has not deterred the Howard government from taking very necessary steps to pursue and punish those who seek to devastate our Southern Ocean fisheries.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority has an unarmed patrol vessel, the Southern Supporter, which makes regular sweeps of our sub-Antarctic fisheries. Indeed, intelligence gathered by the Southern Supporter resulted in the arrest and detention of two Russian-flagged illegal fishing vessels, the Lena and the Volga, earlier this year. On 6 and 7 February this year, in an operation involving AFMA and the Royal Australian Navy, the two vessels were apprehended and returned to Fremantle. The combined illegal catch was some 197 tonnes of patagonian toothfish, with an estimated value of more than $2.5 million. Under Australian law, the penalties for illegal fishing include forfeiture of the vessels, a fine of up to $550,000 per offence and jail.

The international body responsible for the management of fisheries in the Antarctic region, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, is based in Tasmania and is heavily supported by the Australian government. The total allowable catch of our licensed fishing operations is set by the commission and our commercial fishing operations are controlled directly by that commission. Australia has taken a leading role in putting pressure on flag of convenience countries in an effort to reduce poachers' access to ports at which they can unload their illegal but very valuable cargo.

The Australian government has worked closely and very successfully with the French and South African governments to improve surveillance and enforcement arrangements in the Southern Ocean fisheries. It is important to also acknowledge the efforts of the Australian fishing industry itself in counteracting the insidious threat of illegal fishing operations to these precious fishing grounds. In fact, Austral Fisheries, a commercial fishing operation in Perth and the sole Australian operator in far southern waters, spends more than $1 million every year complying with government regulations to protect both the sustainability of the fisheries and the environment generally. Rather than using long-lines, which in these waters pose a significant threat to birds and dolphins, as I have explained, particularly the already fragile albatross populations in the area, Austral Fishing uses the far less destructive trawl fishing methods. Austral Fishing also plays its part in the surveillance of our sub-Antarctic regions and in the apprehension of illegal fishing vessels. In November 2001, an Austral Fishing vessel chased another vessel, a poacher, the Mila, which had been observed fishing illegally in Australian waters. After instructions from Australian fisheries officials, Austral Fishing recovered the illegal vessel's long-lines and the Mila and its crew were then taken into custody by Falkland Islands authorities.

Austral Fisheries is also working with other governments to stop poaching. In June this year, Austral located and chased an illegal fishing vessel, the Eternal. By working with the French navy, the Eternal was apprehended. It had been fishing illegally in the French zone around Kerguelen Island. The Eternal was taken to Reunion, where the officers were fined the equivalent of $A450,000, the fish were sold and the boat impounded—another successful blow to the illegals.

While our licensed commercial fishing vessels and the AFMA patrol boats can certainly serve a surveillance function by identifying and even tracking illegal fishing vessels, it requires the response of the Royal Australian Navy to protect our territory by seizing illegal vessels and apprehending offenders. It is vitally important that the Royal Australian Navy maintains a presence in our sub-Antarctic territories as an effective deterrent to pirate fishing operations. Let me stress that a strong deterrent is required to protect our fish stocks and threatened species. It is not enough to simply catch a few illegal fishing vessels and then auction their cargo—the damage has already been done by that time. We must demonstrate to these poachers that they will be caught should they attempt to pillage our territorial waters. Our actions must be consistent and visible; any sense that our response is a one-off occurrence will not deter these criminals from attempting to gather their multimillion dollar hauls.

I commend the government on the apprehension of the Volga and the Lena this year, but we must not sit back and think the problem has been solved. Clearly it is not feasible or appropriate for commercial fishing vessels to play a policing role in the fight against illegal fishing. However, continued cooperation between commercial fishing operations, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and our defence forces will allow us to retain a sustainable fishing industry and to protect the fragile environment of our Southern Ocean territories.